How do travel rewards credit cards work?

travel rewards credit card image

Travel credit cards let you earn miles you can redeem for free flights and other travel perks.

This guide explains how travel rewards credit cards work, how to compare travel credit cards, and how to maximize your rewards. If you’re undecided, this guide will also help you figure out whether a travel rewards credit card is right for you.

Compare cards with travel rewards

Rates last updated October 23rd, 2017
Name Product Product Description Rewards Points per $ spent (VISA/MC) APR for Purchases ( Purchase Rate ) Annual fee
Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard®
Enjoy 40000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 90 days — that's enough to redeem for a $400 travel statement credit toward an eligible travel purchase.
2
16.99%, 20.99% or 23.99% variable
$0 annual fee for the first year ($89 thereafter)
Luxury Card Mastercard® Titanium Card™
Enjoy unique excursions, privileged access to exclusive events and insider opportunities.
1
15.99% variable
$195 ($95 for each Authorized User added to the account)
Luxury Card Mastercard® Gold Card™
Earn points every time you spend. Luxury Card enhances your purchasing power by providing you with one (1) point for every one dollar ($1) you spend. Every purchase gets you closer to the rewards you want.
2
15.99% variable
$995 ($295 for each Authorized User added to the account)

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How do travel rewards credit cards work?

Travel rewards credit cards are a type of rewards credit card that pays miles on your purchases. For example, your credit card might pay 1 mile per dollar in purchases. Once you accumulate enough miles, you can use your rewards to purchase a flight. The number of rewards required for a flight varies by airline, flight, dates, and the seat you choose.

Your credit card might pay a higher number of rewards for certain purchases – such as airline-specific purchases or travel purchases – and a lower number of miles on all other purchases. You can maximize the rewards you get by using your credit card for the purchases that earn the most miles.

Airline vs. non-airline travel credit cards

Airline credit cards. Some travel rewards credit cards are affiliated with a specific airline – you earn the most rewards when you buy tickets for that airline. Non-airline purchases will earn you a lower level of rewards (and might not earn rewards at all). To maximize those points, you’ll need to be a member of the airline’s frequent flyer scheme (which is usually free to join). As a member of the frequent flyer program, you’ll earn additional miles on flights with the airline even if you don’t pay with your credit card. Affiliated airline credit cards can also come with additional perks like free checked baggage and access to airport lounges.

Non-airline travel rewards credit cards pay a higher amount of rewards on all travel purchases, while other purchases earn a lower amount of rewards. For example, a card may pay 3X points on travel purchases, including airline tickets, and just one point per dollar on everything else. With non-airline travel credit cards, you may be able to use your rewards with a variety of airline partners instead of just a single airline. You may also be able to transfer your rewards to another frequent flyer program, sometimes with no conversion fee.

How to compare travel rewards credit cards

There are dozens of travel rewards credit cards to choose from. Choosing the right airline credit card is key to earning enough rewards to use for a free flight. Here are some factors to consider as you compare airline credit cards.

  • Airline. Choose a credit card affiliated with the airline you use for the majority of your flights. If you tend to fly on different airlines, a non-airline credit card is a better choice. That way, you can earn miles/points regardless of the airline that you use.
  • Signup bonus. Many travel rewards credit cards offer a signup bonus to new cardholders who spend a certain amount of money on purchases within the first few months of having your credit card. Some airline credit cards have signup bonuses with enough rewards to pay for a free flight or automatically put you in the airline’s elite status tier for that calendar year.
Signup carefully

As well as the signup bonus itself, consider whether you can actually meet the spending requirements needed to earn the bonus. Don’t get in over your head; choose a credit card only if you currently spend enough money each month to meet the spending requirement.

  • Rewards categories. The rewards program itself will be another major factor to consider as you pick a travel rewards credit card. The card you choose should pay airline rewards in the categories where you spend the most. Some travel rewards credit cards have simple rewards programs that pay a flat amount of points or miles for every dollar you purchase. This type of card is a good option for a person who just wants to casually earn rewards through normal credit card use. Other airline credit cards have a tiered rewards program structure where various types of purchases earn rewards at different rates. These credit cards require you to put more thought and strategy into your credit card spending, but they also present the opportunity to earn more miles. That means you can earn a free flight much faster.
  • Foreign transaction fees. Many credit cards charge a fee when you make purchases in currency other than US dollars. The fee is a percentage of the transaction, typically 3%. These fees will apply whether you’re traveling overseas or just using an online store based outside the USA. Look for a credit card with no foreign transaction fee to avoid this fee completely.
  • Annual fee. The best travel rewards credit cards have an annual fee. Some cards may waive the fee in the first year, allowing you to enjoy all the benefits without the additional cost. If you choose a credit card that features an annual fee, make sure the card’s benefits outweigh the annual cost. Otherwise, you’re better off choosing a credit card that doesn’t charge an annual fee.
  • Additional perks. Free checked baggage, no foreign transaction fees, priority boarding and free seat upgrades are just a few perks that make a travel rewards credit card much more beneficial. It can take several months to earn enough rewards to redeem for a flight. In the meantime, the extra perks can make the card worthwhile.

Compare popular airline credit cards

United MileagePlus® Explorer Card

  • Intro offer: Get 30,000 miles after you spend your first $1000 within 3 months of opening your account.
  • Annual fee: $95 (waived for the first year)
  • Miles: 2 miles per $1 on all ticket purchases, 1 mile per $1 on all other purchases.
Benefits
  • Priority boarding.
  • One free checked bag.
  • No foreign transaction fees.
  • 10,000 point bonus if you spend $25,000 or more in one year.

Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card

  • Intro offer: Get 40,000 miles after you spend your first $1000 within 3 months of opening your account.
  • Annual fee: $99
  • Miles: 2 miles per $1 on all southwest purchases and at participating hotels and car rental agencies, 1 mile per $1 on all other purchases.
Benefits
  • No foreign transaction fees,
  • Companion pass status after earning 110,000 points or completing 100 one-way flights (companion pass status allows you to bring a guest on your Southwest flight at no additional charge).

Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® MasterCard®

  • Intro offer: Get 30,000 miles after you spend your first $1000 within 3 months of opening your account.
  • Annual fee: $95 (waived for the first year)
  • Miles: 2 miles per $1 on all American Airlines purchases, 1 mile per $1 on all other purchases.

Benefits

  • One free checked bag for you and up to four other people on your reservation.
  • Priority boarding.
  • Discounts on in-flight food and beverages.

British Airways Visa Signature® Card

  • Intro offer: Get 50,000 avios (british airways club currency) after you spend your first $1000 within 3 months of opening your account.
  • Annual fee: $95
  • Avios: three avios per $1 on all american airlines purchases, one avios per $1 on all other purchases.
Benefits
  • No foreign transaction fees,
  • Free travel together ticket after spending $30,000 in one year (a travel together ticket allows you to bring a guest on your british airways flight at no additional charge).

Will a travel rewards credit card work for you?

While the ability to earn miles and free flights appeals to everyone with a bit of wanderlust, a travel rewards credit card isn’t for everyone. It might work best for you if:

  • You have excellent credit. Credit card issuers give the best credit cards to consumers with a history of paying their bills on time and managing their debt well. If you don’t have a great credit score, work on improving your credit before you apply for a travel rewards credit card.
  • You pay your balance in full each month. As with any rewards credit card, paying your balance in full is the best way to get the full benefit of your travel rewards credit card, especially if the credit card charges an annual fee. Carrying a balance will cause you to pay interest that can offset the rewards you earn from your credit card.
  • You are loyal to one airline. Some of the best rewards come from airline-specific credit cards, in which case the card works best when you have a preferred airline that you use for most of your flights. You won’t mind that you need to use that airline brand to earn rewards or that your rewards are most valuable when you choose that airline or one of its partners.

How to maximize your travel rewards

The more rewards you can earn and the faster you can earn them, the sooner you can accumulate enough points to book your free flight. Once you’ve been approved for the travel credit card of your choice, here are some ways to maximize your rewards.

  • Earn the signup bonus. First, make sure you choose a credit card that offers a signup bonus. The bigger the bonus, the better. Then, tailor your spending so you earn the bonus. That may mean using that credit card exclusively for everything you possibly can for the bonus qualifying period.
Signup carefully

If your credit limit isn’t large enough to accommodate the spending necessary to earn the signup bonus, you may have to make frequent payments to free up additional credit. For example, if your credit limit is $3,000, but you need to spend $5,000 to earn the spending balance, you’ll have to pay off your credit card balance at least once to free up funds for more spending.

  • Maximize your spending in the highest earning categories. If your travel rewards credit card pays more rewards on certain types of purchases, make sure you use your card for those purchases as much as possible. For example, if your card pays double points on restaurant purchases, make sure you use it every time you dine out. You’ll earn airline rewards much faster by focusing on the categories that earn double and triple miles versus those that earn just one point or mile per dollar.
  • Book with the airline directly. You may be used to using an online travel agency website like Expedia or Orbitz to book your travel because it allows you to search for the best prices. However, many travel credit cards do not pay miles on purchases made with online travel booking tools. Instead, book your flight directly through the airline to earn rewards on your flight purchase.
  • Reach elite status. As you earn more miles with the airline’s frequent flyer program, you have the opportunity to reach elite status. As your frequent flyer status increases, you earn more miles per flight. “Elite” miles are not always redeemable for flights, but instead help you reach a frequent flyer status that rewards you with additional perks like free first class upgrade, priority boarding and mileage bonus. The mileage bonuses you earn with elite status helps you earn free flights much faster.

Drawbacks of travel rewards credit cards

While travel credit cards have the potential to provide big benefits, there are some drawbacks to consider before you apply. Understanding the potential drawbacks can help you use a travel credit card to your advantage.

  • You may not be able to transfer miles to another airline. With airline-specific credit cards, the rewards you earn are often tied to a specific airline. Certain airline carriers may not fly to your desired destination, particularly international destinations. As well, you may not be able to transfer your rewards to an airline that does offer the flight you want. In that way, your airline credit card can be a bit restricting.
  • You may lose points in converting. Some frequent flyer programs let you transfer miles you’ve earned on another carrier’s airline credit card. If your card does allow you to transfer points to another airline or frequent flyer program, you may lose some points in the conversion.
  • You may be responsible for taxes and fees. Even after you’ve accumulated enough rewards to cover your flight, your airline’s reward program may require you to pay for taxes and fees on your flight. Depending on the carrier, these fees can be as high as the flight itself. You’re still saving money, as you don’t have to pay for the flight, but it’s important to know that the flight may not be as “free” as you assumed.
  • Some flights may not be available. While most travel credit cards now tout “no blackout dates,” that doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed a seat on the flight. Airlines only release a certain number of seats to customers paying with miles. You can expect certain dates, like holidays or spring break, to book fast. Book your travel as far in advance as possible for the best chance at getting a seat.
  • Miles can be devalued. Airlines can change mileage values, upping the number of miles you need to book a flight. Fortunately, if you’ve already booked a flight at the time of the program change, you should be able to keep your flight without having to pay extra miles. However, if you were saving up to redeem for a future flight, you’ll have to spend a little more to reach the miles you need.

Mistakes to avoid with a travel rewards credit card

Avoid these critical mistakes when you’re using a travel credit card.

  • Not paying your balance in full each month. Interest rates on travel rewards credit cards tend to be higher than the rates on regular credit cards. You could end up paying more in interest than you’ve earned in rewards, which makes the miles you’ve earned worth a lot less. By paying your balance in full each month, you avoid paying interest on your credit card.
  • Paying late. Late payments are bad not only because they increase the cost of having a credit card and can potentially damage your credit score, but also because they can mean you forfeit your miles. Depending on the terms of your reward program, you may forfeit your rewards with just one missed payment. You don’t want to lose all your hard-earned points from something as easily avoided as a late payment.
  • Using your card for transactions that don’t earn rewards. Your travel rewards credit card won’t pay miles on cash advances or balance transfers. Use another credit card for these transactions and save your travel credit card for purchases that will allow you to earn airline miles.

Frequently asked questions

Typically no, you will not earn any miles for transferring a balance to a travel rewards credit card.

Unlike other rewards cards, travel cards generally all charge an annual fee of $75 or more.

Sometimes yes, but not always. It’s important that you read the credit card agreement entirely so you know what to expect.

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